USA TODAY Sports

The Exception, Not the Rule

Is the Syracuse zone outdated or has it become ineffective? We provide a statistical analysis inside.

With the extension of Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim beyond next season, there has been a lot of discussion regarding his patented 2-3 zone. Specifically, there is a narrative that it is no longer effective and does not work in modern college basketball due to the poor performance of the Orange defense this season. 

But when you look at the numbers, it is clear that is more the exception than the rule. In fact, when you look across college basketball, more and more zone is being played. Look at Coach K at Duke as one example. He has implemented and used more zone than he ever has. This after spending time with Boeheim as part of USA Basketball. 

We went back 10 years to break down the numbers and looked at three key defensive metrics. Field goal percentage defense, three-point field percentage defense and turnovers forced per game. We looked at the raw numbers and their ranking within college basketball for that given year. 

Season FG% FG% Rk 3PT% 3PT% Rk TOs TO Rk
2016-17 43.0% 115 34.3% 126 13.4 136
2015-16 41.2% 54 30.7% 13 13.3 112
2014-15 40.5% 62 31.4% 44 14.1 44
2013-14 41.0% 52 34.5% 176 13.4 84
2012-13 36.9% 2 28.4% 3 15.4 39
2011-12 38.5% 7 31.5% 47 15.5 33
2010-11 39.4% 12 31.5% 30 13.5 148
2009-10 39.8% 22 30.2% 22 15.1 53
2008-09 41.1% 58 29.6% 7 13.5 177
2007-08 42.3% 88 35.3% 183 14.5 137

The stats tell an interesting story. In the last 10 years, Syracuse has been in the top 60 in field goal percentage defense seven times. They have been top 50 in three-point percentage defense seven times as well. So what does this mean? Their defense this past season was more the exception than the rule. 

It was the worst in the last ten years in terms of field goal percentage defense and third worst in terms of three-point defense. But the numbers outside of the few exceptions are quite favorable to the zone. Not only in the raw numbers but in the national ranking. 

In the last few years, the defense was not as strong as in the previous few. That is due more because of the personnel rather than the system itself. Look at the Final Four run in the 2015-16 season. They were 13th in the country in field goal percentage defense. As the game evolves more and more into shooting game, the zone is actually quite effective at defending the three-point arc. 

With proper rotations and the guards getting out on shooters, they push opponents out further than desired. It causes teams to take longer, contested shots when working. When players do not keep their hands up or get out on shooters, it allows open looks and uncontested jumpers. 

The point is, the system is not broken. The zone is not the problem. Rather the execution of it. 

So with Boeheim set to be running the show for the foreseeable future, the zone will be the Orange's primary defense. And there is no reason to believe, based on past results, it cannot get back to what it has been the vast majority of the time. A stifling defense that forces teams into bad shots and help Syracuse win games. 


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